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Authors: Sandra Brown

Tags: #Fiction, #Thrillers, #Suspense

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BOOK: The Alibi
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movie. But the new wore off hours ago. They've

given the same answers to the same questions several

times over, so now they're getting surly. We're not

getting much out of them except a lot of bellyaching

about why they can't leave."

 

"I find it hard to believe—"

 

"Who invited you, anyway?" Collins fired at Steffi

when she interrupted again.

 

"That out of all those people," she said, speaking

over him, "somebody didn't see something."

 

Smilow held up his hand to squelch a full-fledged

quarrel between his discouraged detective and the

outspoken prosecutor. "Okay, you two. We're all

tired. Steffi, I see no reason for you to hang around.

When we've got something, you'll be notified."

 

"Fat chance." She folded her arms across her chest

and glared defiantly at Collins. "I'm staying."

 

Reluctantly, Smilow gave the go-ahead for the

hotel guests to be allowed to return to their rooms. He

then assembled his detectives in one of the meeting

rooms on the mezzanine level and ordered pizzas to

be delivered. While they decimated the pizzas, he reviewed

the scanty amount of information they had

gleaned after hours of exhaustive interrogation.

 

"Pettijohn had a massage in the spa?" he asked, reviewing

the notes.

 

"Yeah." One of the detectives swallowed a large

mouthful of pizza. "Right after he got here."

 

"Did you question the masseur?"

 

The man nodded. "Said Pettijohn asked for the

deluxe massage, a full ninety minutes. Pettijohn

showered in the locker room, that's why the bathroom

in the suite was dry."

 

"Was this guy suspicious?"

"Not that I could see," the detective mumbled

around another bite. "Hired from a spa in California.

New to Charleston. Met Pettijohn for the first time

today."

Smilow studied the hastily compiled breakdown

of registered guests. All appeared above suspicion.

All claimed never to have met Lute Pettijohn, although

a few knew of him through the media blitz

given the opening of Charles Towne Plaza a few

months earlier.

Most were just plain folks on vacation with their

families. Three couples were honeymooning. Several

others pretended to be, when it was obvious that they

were secret lovers on an illicit weekend getaway to a

romantic city. These answered the detectives' questions

nervously, but not because they were guilty of

murder, only adultery.

All but three rooms on the fourth floor were occupied

by a group of lady schoolteachers from Florida.

Two suites were overfilled with a boys' basketball

team who had graduated high school in the spring

and were having one last fling together before scattering

to their respective universities. Their only

crime was underage drinking. To the consternation of

his buddies, one voluntarily turned over a nickel bag

of marijuana to the interrogating officer.

The consensus was that if Lute Pettijohn hadn't

been murdered the previous afternoon, it would have

been a routine summer Saturday.

"Long, hot, and sticky," remarked one of the detectives,

yawning hugely.

"You talking about the day, or my dick?" another

joked.

"You wish."

"What about the security video?" Smilow asked,

bringing the banter to a halt. The detectives smirked

at what was obviously an inside joke. "What?"

Smilow demanded.

"You want to see it?" Collins asked.

"Is there something to see?"

After another round of snickers, Collins suggested

that Smilow take a look, and even invited Steffi to

watch the video with them. "You might learn something,"

he said to her.

Smilow and Steffi followed the detectives across

the wide mezzanine lobby and into one of the smaller

conference rooms, where a VCR machine was cued

up and ready to play on a color monitor.

With unnecessary fanfare, Collins introduced the

video. "At first the guy monitoring the security cameras

yesterday afternoon told me that the video from

the camera on that floor had been misplaced."

Smilow knew from experience that surveillance

cameras were usually attached to time-lapse

recorders that exposed one frame of video every five

to ten seconds, depending on the user's discretion.

That's why they appeared jumpy when replayed.

Typically they recorded for days before automatically

rewinding.

"What was the tape doing out of the machine?

Aren't the tapes generally left in the recorders and recycled

unless there's a need to view them?"

"That was my first tip-off that he was lying,"

Collins said. "So I kept after him. Finally he coughed

up this video. Ready?"

Getting a nod from Smilow, he pushed the play

button on the VCR. Even if there had been no accompanying

video, the sound track was unmistakably

that of a triple-X-rated film. The sighs and moans

were background for a grainy moving picture of a

couple engaged in a sexual act.

"This scene runs for about fifteen minutes,"

Collins explained. "After the come shot, it switches

to two broads in a bathtub getting each other off.

Then it's got your basic domination scene with--"

"I get it," Smilow snapped. "Turn it off." He ignored

the boos and hisses from the other men in the

room. "Sorry, Steffi."

"Don't be. Detective Collins's little joke at my expense

merely supports my theory that the phrase 'adult male' is a contradiction in terms."

The other men laughed, but Collins harrumphed,

unfazed by the put-down. "Here's the kicker," he told

them. "Pettijohn's boast about state-of-the-art security

was so much hot air. The cameras on the guest

room floors are bogus. Dummies."

"What?" Steffi exclaimed.

"The only working camera in the entire complex is

in the accounting department. Pettijohn didn't want

anybody stealing from him, but I guess he didn't care

if his guests got robbed or bumped off. The joke's on

him, huh?"

Smilow asked, "Why did the kid lie?"

"That's what he'd been told to do. By big bad Pettijohn

himself. We're not talking about a rocket scientist

here, so he held tough even after we assured

him that Pettijohn was dead and that the only thing he

had to fear was lying to us. He finally cracked. We

checked it out. The cameras are shills."

"How many people know that?"

"My guess would be not too many."

"Check it out. Start with people in managerial positions."

"Will do."

Addressing the group at large, Smilow said, "First

thing in the morning, we start on Pettijohn's enemies.

We'll compile a list--"

"Or we could save ourselves the trouble and just

use the phone book," one of the men quipped.

"Everybody I know will be glad the son of a bitch is

dead."

Smilow shot him a hard look.

"Oh, sorry," he mumbled, his smile vanishing. "I

forgot you two were kin."

"We weren't kin. He was married to my sister. For

a while. That's it. I probably had less liking for him

than anyone."

Steffi leaned forward. "You didn't pop him, did

you, Smilow?"

Everyone laughed, but Smilow's terse, "No, I

didn't," spoken as though he'd taken her question

seriously, ended the laughter as abruptly as it had

started.

"Excuse me, Mr. Smilow?"

Standing in the open doorway was Smitty. Smilow

checked his wristwatch. It was after midnight. "I

thought you'd be anxious to get home," he said to the

shoeshine man.

"They only just now told us we could go home,

Mr. Smilow."

"Oh, yeah." He hadn't thought of hotel fixtures

like Smitty being detained for long hours of questioning,

although he had mandated it himself. "Sorry

about that."

"Never mind, Mr. Smilow. I was just wonderin',

did anybody 'round here tell y'all about those folks

that were taken to the hospital yesterday?"

"Hospital?"

CHAPTER 6

 

The capital letter E on the instrument panel of her

car flashed red.

She groaned with frustration. The last thing she

wanted to do was stop and pump gasoline, but she

knew from experience that when the gauge on this

car said empty, it was dangerously accurate.

Service stations were scarce on this stretch of rural

highway, so when she came upon one only a few

miles after seeing the warning light, she pulled in and

lethargically got out of her car.

Ordinarily when she pumped her own gas she paid

by credit card at the pump. But technology hadn't

stretched this far into the boonies. As a matter of

principle, she disliked having to pay in advance. So

she removed the nozzle from the pump and flipped

down the lever. She twisted off her gas cap and set it

on the roof of her car, inserted the nozzle in the tank,

then waved at the attendant in the booth, motioning

for him to engage the pump.

He was watching a wrestling match on his black

and white TV. She could barely see him through the

neon beer signs and the posters taped to the window

announcing outdated events and lost pets. Either he

hadn't

noticed her or he was standing on his own

principle of not turning on the pump until the customer

paid in advance, especially after dark.

"Damn." She relented, walked to the office, and

slid a bill into the dirty tray beneath an even dirtier

window.

"Twenty dollars' worth? Anything else?" he asked,

his eyes remaining glued to the TV screen.

"No, thanks."

The rate of flow was a trickle, but the pump finally

clicked off. She removed the nozzle and replaced it

on the pump. As she was reaching for the gas tank

cap, another car pulled off the road and into the station.

She was caught in the bright headlights and

squinted against the glare.

The car rolled to a stop only a few feet from her

rear bumper. The driver turned off the headlights but

didn't kill the engine before opening the door and

stepping out.

Her lips parted in wordless surprise. But she

didn't move or speak. She didn't berate him for following

her. Or demand to know why he had. Or insist

that he get lost and leave her alone. She didn't do

anything but look at him.

His hair looked darker now that the sun had gone

down, not as tawny as it appeared in daylight. She

knew his eyes were grayish blue, although now they

were deeply shadowed. One eyebrow was slightly

higher and more arched than the other, but this asymmetric

quirk added interest. His chin had a shallow

vertical cleft. He cast a long shadow because he was

tall. Weight would never be a problem; he didn't have

the frame to carry much extra poundage.

For several seconds they stared at each other

across the hood of his car, then he stepped around the

open door. Her eyes followed his progress as he came

toward her. The determination with which his jaw

was set said a lot about his character. He wasn't easily

discouraged, and he wasn't afraid to go after

something he wanted.

He didn't stop until he was standing directly in

front of her. Then he cupped her face between his

hands and lifted it toward his as he bent down and

kissed her.

And she thought, Oh, God.

His lips were full and sensual, and they delivered

what they suggested. His kiss was warm and sweet

and earnest. He applied the perfect amount of pressure,

leaving no question that she was being soundly

kissed, but without making her feel overpowered or

threatened. It was such a perfect kiss that her lips

parted naturally. When his tongue touched hers, her

heart expanded and her arms encircled his waist.

He lowered his hands, so that one arm was free to

go around her shoulders while the other curved to fit

the small of her back and to draw her against him

full-length. He angled his head. Hers made a countermove.

The kiss deepened, his tongue probing. The

longer they kissed, the more ardent it became.

Then suddenly he broke away. He was breathing

hard. His hands resumed their previous position on

either side of her face. "That's what I had to know. It

wasn't just me."

She shook her head as much as his hands would

allow it to move. "No," she said, surprised by the

huskiness of her own voice. "It wasn't just you."

"Follow me?"

Protests died on her lips before she could even

speak them.

"I have a cabin not far from here. Two, three

miles."

44T ??

 

"Don't say no." His whispered voice was ragged,

impassioned. His hands pressed tighter. "Don't say

no."

Her eyes searched his, then she made a small, assenting

motion with her head. He released her immediately,

BOOK: The Alibi
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